Mill on the Floss – again, this time linked to the WMC

You may recall that The Paula Principle begins with scenes from George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. There again, you might not, so a recap: Tom and Maggie Tulliver are brother and sister; she is twice as bright (or ‘cute, as her father puts it) as he is but he is the one on whom precious family funds are spent sending away for an education; the ‘schooling’ turns out to be personal tutorials in topics such as Euclid and algebra, given by Mr Stelling, a parson with an expensive wife to keep; Tom cannot relate these to his practical interests and so learns little; meanwhile Maggie devours books at home, becoming altogether too bright for her father’s taste:

She’s twice as cute as Tom. Too ‘cute for a woman, I’m afraid. It’s no mischief while she’s a little un, but an over-‘cute woman’s no better nor a long-time sheep – she’ll find none the bigger price for that.

I’ve just re-read Mill on the Floss, and was struck by several things I’d forgotten – or probably never noticed. Maggie is very bright, certainly, but also scatter-brained. The Tulliver and Dodson families are richly comic, and tell us a lot about social priorities. The lawyer Wakem is yet another example of Eliot’s talent for allowing characters who have a largely unpleasant role nevertheless to show a sympathetic side.

Both Tom and his father are much more prickly and stubborn than I’d remembered. It is Mr Tulliver’s stiff-necked unwillingness to compromise at all with Wakem that leads to the family disaster. He is genuinely benevolent, but has to have his own way. And Tom follows him down that path, hard-working and with firm and honest principles but so unwilling to allow alternative behaviours that he contributes to the ultimate debacle.

Tom knows that he will always out-earn his sister, even as children. When she offers him some money to make up for the fact that his pet rabbit died while in her care, he exclaims:

I don’t want your money. you silly thing. I’ve got a great deal more money than you, because I’m a boy. I always have half-sovereigns and sovereigns for my Christmas boxes, because I shall be a man, and you only have five-shilling pieces, because you’re only a girl.

It’s Eliot’s genius that she makes us sympathise with both Tom and his father in spite of their less appealing characteristics. I don’t often use ‘patriarchy’ but the term exactly conveys the pair’s conviction that they are entitled to make decisions with no reference to the views or wishes of their womenfolk, and to plough on regardless of the consequences. I find Eliot’s capacity to empathise with characters who vary on almost every dimension – gender, class and humanity – truly extraordinary, with Middlemarch the acme of her achievement in this regard.

Part of the sad irony is that the expenditure on Tom’s education is wasted – if it has any effect, it is probably to unfit him for what he wants to do, though he shows admirable determination in finding his feet occupationally, even though it comes too late to save him and his sister.

Tom, like everyone of us, was imprisoned within the limits of his own nature, and his education had simply glided over him, leaving a slight deposit of polish; if you are inclined to be severe on his severity [towards Maggie], remember that the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.

What a lot that sentence tells us still about the failures of our education, probably especially so in relation to boys. I’m not risking going further into that particular morass, except that Tom’s mis-education gives me an unexpected link to a discussion I had recently with Dick Taylor, who is writing the history of the Working Men’s College.

The WMC – of which I was proud to be a governor for 10 years – was founded just before Mill on the Floss was written, by F.D. Maurice, a Christian Socialist whose intention was to provide working men with sufficient education to head them off from more radical paths. The education was a liberal one, with the curriculum divided into 3 broad areas: theology, humanities, and what was called the Natural Division, an eclectic bag which included physiology, arithmetic, music and drawing. Our discussion was how far the original, liberal, goals of the college had been subverted by ‘vocationalism’, or the instrumental goal of equipping people with marketable skills.

This is a common beef from those who critique neo-liberalism in all its forms: education has become subservient to industry/capitalism/the market. And yet, as Dick pointed out, Maurice would have seen enabling people to lift themselves out of poverty as quite compatible with the spirit of the college. We should not forget that many of the educational forms which seem impeccably liberal are routes to occupational success today – even if it is no longer quite the case that a classical education in Latin and Greek is the vocational training of the ruling class.

What poor Tom needed was to be given the skills that would have helped him achieve the dignity he sought, perhaps not following in his father’s footsteps as a miller but not too far away from the practical side. But at the same time he needed the kinds of insights into others’ feelings and values that Eliot so brilliantly provides. Not that he would have dreamt of opening a novel….

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